Students and faculty struggled to make space in the theater lobby as we were shuffled closer together, so other people could join us. We stood in silence with our heads down. The only sound to be heard was the occasional teary gasp or shuddering breath. I felt the weight of a life pressing on the back of my neck, and I kept my head down. Besides, I’m not a fan of letting people see me cry.
This was a vigil for a boy who hung himself at a construction site three nights earlier, on Jan. 10.
I had a few tears falling from the moment everyone gathered in the room, and the stories kids told of 15-year-old Theo, a sophomore at Grady High School, certainly kept them flowing. But all of that was nothing in comparison to the email his older brother asked to be read to us.
The debate coach, Mr. Herrera, had just given his speech about what Theo meant to him and what he would remember about the successful debater when the email buzzed on his phone.
Herrera stopped for a second and said, “I just got an email from his brother.”
You could feel the room forget how to breathe for a moment.
I stared hard at the ground and let my hair cover most of my face. I was intensely aware of the people around me. In front of me on the left stood a group of Theo’s closest friends. They stood stoically and solemnly. My friends, who held each other because nothing else seemed stable, were spread out throughout the room.
As I stood clenching my jaw, Herrera read the email that began to describe the events of Theo’s suicide. It explained how he had taken antidepressant medication before and stopped taking them when he felt better. How his parents sat him down the night before to talk about suicidal thoughts, and he promised to say something if he was feeling that way. How the next day he told his family and friends he was going to debate. When someone called because they realized he wasn’t there, he said was getting food. How in actuality he took an uber to midtown, walked into a construction site and hung himself.
His body was found at four o’clock the next morning.
By then people’s tears came in wild gasps. I pulled at the end of my sleeves, clenched my fists and let the tears fall in tidal waves. I stared at the floor, covered by the safety net of my hair, and I cried without making a sound.
Every once in a while you could hear Herrera stop talking, and you knew he was fighting back his own tears.
I stopped listening to the email, and I wrote a letter to Theo in my head.
I’m sorry. I’m sorry you thought you had to fight your depression alone. I’m sorry I didn’t know you well enough to tell you that you were never alone. I’m sorry people are lying about you now. I’m sorry people who thought you were pretentious are now singing your praises. I think what they really mean is that sometimes behaving pretentiously didn’t mean that you deserved to die. I think what they really mean is that even though you sometimes irritated people, we all knew you were going to be the president or something someday. Because there’s no way someone who is as smart and driven and passionate as you doesn’t rule the goddamn world.
I’m sorry because I know how you felt when you got those phone calls on Tuesday — how with every lie you told you had to recommit to your plan. I’m sorry that you felt like you had to commit to that plan at all. I’m sorry because I know how you felt when you slipped your head in the noose. I know how you probably took a second to realize that this was it. It was over. This was moment of truth. I’m sorry you had to go through all of that.
I’m sorry that you would’ve hated everything we’re doing for you now. You would’ve hated the blue hearts and the inspirational quotes. I’m sorry that it’s all we know how to do to move on. I’m sorry I’m thinking about myself right now. I’m sorry I am lucky enough to not truly be grieving right now. I’m sorry that I’m hurting for reasons you’re triggering that have nothing to do with the life you led. I’m sorry that I know you would’ve led an amazing life if you had been allowed to continue. I’m sorry that your family will never have dinner with you again. I’m sorry you’ll never hear your favorite song again. I’m sorry there are people that have to learn how to not hear your favorite songs and cry. I’m sorry so many people have to learn how to stop crying. I’m sorry I didn’t know you better, and I didn’t get a chance to see more of you than the guy who uses unnecessary words and seems like he’s trying to constantly tell the world he’s smarter than them. I’m sorry I didn’t know. I’m sorry none of us knew. I’m sorry you felt so alone. You were never alone.
The only two things I remember from the latter half of the email are these lines:
“Theo’s death was no one’s fault. Not even his own.”
“We will not let the circumstances of his death overshadow the memory of the life he lived.”
When the speeches ended, and we were all directed to make our way to the courtyard where balloons would be released in Theo’s honor. I lost my friends in the swaths of people all trying to make it through one set of doors.
I could feel my heart start to race in that panicky way, and I shook my hands impulsively by my sides. I kept thinking, “I can’t be here doing this right now with these people.” I wanted to be out in the January air where my breaths felt a little lighter. Maybe the cold would short circuit some sense into my heart.
We got outside, and a friend pulled me into her arms and let me cry. I stood like that — wrapped in the arms of a six-foot tall girl who made me feel unreasonably safe — until I could remember how to breathe.
I don’t remember who was in charge of releasing the bunches of blue balloons, but as the wind threatened to pull them away, a low voice counted slowly from 10. As the balloons were released into the air, one set got stuck on part of the school building, and we thought they might not float away after all. A part of me wanted to believe that was Theo, being the contrarian he had built a reputation for being. A part of me wanted to believe that as they untangled and flew away, he was saying goodbye. Perhaps he was telling us that it’s okay to eventually let go.
The ceremony finished, and people lingered outside around the food someone’s parents had made. Some friends and I found our way back inside to each other, and we stood in a circle and cried.
We cried over the value of the life that had been lost.
“I shouldn’t be at the vigil for a 15-year old. It’s wrong,” I said with a teary gasp, “He didn’t deserve to die. He was so smart. He was going places.”
We cried in a circle and laughed over how much Theo would’ve hated everything we’re doing to try and honor him. We laughed about the awful music he might be listening to right now if there is a heaven. We laughed about how he was the kind of guy who would’ve looked God in the eye and convinced him that He wasn’t real.
I left to go hide in the restroom and regroup. I stood with my back against the door.
I thought again of Theo. I closed my eyes and sent one last message to a spirit that for my conscience’s sake I hope exists.
I ask your forgiveness for thinking so much about myself tonight. I ask your forgiveness for the fact that I have no more tears to cry. I have no emotions left to give you.
I want to tell you that your death changed things. It changed the Grady community as a whole, forever. I want to tell you that nothing will ever be the same because of what happened on Tuesday, and sometimes that is the only way I will know how to remember you. I want to tell you that I didn’t know you, but you mattered to me because you were a life on this planet, so you had potential. You had stories to tell that won’t be lived now. I want to tell you that you will be on my mind for a long time, but eventually the way I will remember you is to live in the present that you shaped.
I ask your forgiveness for this because I know your life was worth more than that. And I also know that now we have to figure out how to lead ours.
And now that you’re gone, it all has to mean something. You have to be the reason that we all care about each other a little more. We all reach out and get the help we need. You have to be the reason that we never have to mourn a child’s suicide again.
So again, I ask your forgiveness for making this about anyone other than you, but there has to be some purpose, some silver lining.
Theo, your death has to mean something. This cannot just be a life lost.
Haley, 15, attends Grady High School and is the spring 2018 VOX Investigates peer editor. She took the photo for this story at her school.
Last year, the VOX Investigates team covered many angles and stories of mental health. Please click here for resources for you or a friend. Two specific resources for help are below.
If you or someone you know are having suicidal thoughts, please find help with the links below.
Teen Line offers support by teens, for teens (ages 13 to 19) by phone or text.
- CALL 310-855-4673
- TEXT TEEN to 839863
They also have a “Teen Yellow Pages,” searchable resource guide.
Will to Live, a nonprofit based in Johns Creek, Georgia (just north of Atlanta) focuses on suicide prevention and publishes resources for help, too. The obituary published in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution noted donating to this organization as a “fitting” way to honor Theo’s life.